Sheri picked us up in her white van at the pre-determined 9 a.m. hour, early by Oaxaca standards, though the streets were already abuzz with honking vehicles. Our first stop was the ATM (exchange rate 13.12 pesos to the dollar) to stock up again for the day long adventure down the Ocotlan highway. We passed the airport and headed south along the valley highway that leads to some incredible crafts villages, stopping for gas at Pemex the state-owned oil company. The earlier the better along this road because the Ocotlan market attracts people from throughout the region whose motivations are to shop for the sheer pleasure of it or for survival needs of buying and selling everything from oilcloth table coverings, hammocks, woven baskets, pipes and gaskets, kitchen utensils, leather belts, children’s plastic shoes and everything else under the sun, including live turkeys raised for market, feet bound in twine so as not to escape. The van boasted New Mexico license plates, a good fit for around these parts, although vehicles are brought down from every state in north America to be bought, sold and traded.
We circumvented the hubbub, stopping first at the three Aguilar sisters whose shops you might miss if you didn’t pay attention. They are on the right side of the road heading into Ocotlan, about three blocks before arriving at the zocalo, market central. This is true folk art at its best. Josefina sits with legs tucked under her on a padded blanket in the courtyard of her home and sales area forming figures out of soft clay that will later be fired in a kiln that may not reach more than eight hundred degrees. Grandchildren dart around playing with kittens. Sons and daughters participate in the clay forming and painting. Tourists from all corners of the earth stream in and out. This is a famous stopping place for collecting Oaxaca art, yet the prices of the pieces match the humble working and living space: smaller figures range in price from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty pesos. That translates from about twelve to twenty dollars each. Collectors and dealers buy, pack and resell these figures in the U.S. for triple or quadruple the cost.
Next door, sister Irene sculpts hot women of the night and paints their hair yellow, applying blue glitter to create a dress, bosom prominent, one arm on hip, the other akimbo sporting a cigarette, a snake boa wrapped to cover cleavage (just barely). Imagination flies. A muerta, not yet painted, bares her skeletal teeth and she flaunts a haughty lilt of the head topped with a wide-brimmed hat to shade her from the strong sun. How will I get these home? I ask myself as I consider a purchase. Oh, don’t think about it, I answer silently. Go for it anyway, and I do, and because of my magic packing suitcase, everything arrives undamaged. My prize possession from Guillermina is a skeletal crone whose flowing dress is painted black. The hem is adorned with cream colored skulls, a red spider crawls along the folds of her skirt, a black shawl frames the sinister face. Dia de los Muertos is characterized by underworld forms.
Forgive me if I repeat myself. The impressions of Oaxaca are continuous revelations in memory. As we head back out of town, we make a left turn almost immediately onto the side road leading to San Antonino, where I want to relocate Don Jose Garcia, the blind potter. We go down a ways, turn right, make an immediate left at the next street and look for the clay animals that hang over the door to the courtyard that signals we have arrived. A dog barks. The door is ajar. We ring the bell and step inside to be welcomed by the family. Life-size clay figures cluster around the patio, are tucked haphazardly into corners, are laying on their sides — humans, animals, children. We are greeted by Don Jose and his wife who guide us into the workshop packed with more sculpture, wall to wall, like the clay soldiers of Xian, men, women, and children stand or kneel side by side, almost alive, waiting to be adopted and taken home.
These pieces are glorious, primitive, raw clay, unglazed. Some are rough. Some are polished. Each with a unique expression that conveys individuality and personality, a special quality that Don Jose has breathed life into as he forms the clay, braids the hair, fashions the nose, tilts the neck, arches the brow or mustache. These are heavy pieces, primitive. To ship them would require a crate and an investment of hundreds of dollars. We admire and take our leave.
Hungry, our next stop is at Azucena where Jacobo Angeles operates a fine restaurant that caters to tourists and tour buses, Elderhostel, and other forms of non-adventure travel. This is good for San Martin Tilcajete business, since Jacobo represents many of the finest carvers in the village. On this day, there is a special exhibition of regional folk art on the grounds of the restaurant and gallery, a perfect opportunity to pick up another carving, to eat and drink well, and to make a necessary bathroom stop.
We backtrack to Santo Tomas Jalieza to visit Abigail Mendoza and her family at Nicolas Bravo #1. On backstrap looms, they weave fine cloth with intricate figures that are fashioned into handbags, belts, wrist bands, table runners, and placemats. Abigail does the finish work for the rugs woven by Arnulfo Mendoza and Tito Mendoza. This is among the finest quality backstrap loom weaving you will find anywhere in the Oaxaca valley.
By now, it is five o’clock in the afternoon and the light is beginning to wane. We travel along the highway back to Oaxaca with a trunk full of goodies, ready for a fresh mango margarita and guacamole at La Olla. Descanse.